Tuesday, October 1, 2013

“The Last Chance Saloon”: Spectre of the Gun

"Zoinks! It's...It's It again! Let's git!"

Star Trek is not in a healthy position.

Let's get this over with right from the start. This is a dead show walking, and the average quality it hits over the next year backs this up completely. Under no condition did NBC want a fourth season of Star Trek, and the network went out of its way to hurry the show's inevitable demise along, slashing the budget while increasing the actors' salaries and shunting it into the Friday Night Death Slot, the final straw that lead almost the entire original creative team to stage a mass exodus in protest. Furthermore, those who did stay on were driven away by NBC's constant micromanaging and burdening them with D.C. Fontana's replacement as story editor, one Arthur Singer, who by all accounts knew absolutely nothing about what Star Trek was and how it worked, and nor did he care.

Traditionally, the blame for the malaise of the 1968-9 season was laid at the feet of incoming producer and showrunner Fred Frieberger, who is typically seen as a network lackey and responsible for “ruining” Star Trek. However, the reality was likely far more complex then being the fault of one person: Although Leonard Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry are quick to finger Frieberger, in their memoirs of their time on the show, both Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner go out of their way to defend him, saying he did the best he could with a show that had become at that point unmanageable. For the rest of his life, Frieberger was hounded by fans and critics alike eager to blame him for “killing” the Original Series, even going so far as to say his tenure as showrunner of and association with Star Trek was the single worst experience of his life, counting the time he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Thankfully, one of the more laudable phenomena of recent Star Trek fandom is a comprehensive movement to redeem Frieberger. It's just a shame they couldn't have done that for other people involved in the franchise's early years as well.

And really, this does seem to make a lot more sense then to posit Frieberger was some Evil Network Demon come to destroy the fans' beloved utopia. Frieberger was an extremely professional and experienced television producer, with credits on shows like The Six-Million Dollar Man, Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide, and The Dukes of Hazzard among many, many others. It seems, erm, illogical to argue he was an incompetent hack on Star Trek and Star Trek alone. It's far more reasonable (and fits with the rest of what we know about this point of the show's history) the presume this was a situation that was entirely out of Frieberger's control.

Furthermore, Herb Solow and Bob Justman, perhaps predictably, don't even need to think about laying all the blame at the feet of Gene Roddenberry in Inside Star Trek, whom they continually take to task for abandoning the show and leaving it leaderless (while continuing to draw an executive producer's salary from an already desperate budget, no less). And look, while I'm usually quick to side with Solow and Justman in regards to pretty much everything and in spite of my deep loathing of Roddenberry, I can't entirely fault him for jumping ship here, nor can I fault D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon and John Meredyth Lucas for stepping back from day-to-day operations. Like the O.K. Corral in the episode I promise I'm going to actually talk about soon, this looks like a situation that it was far more advisable to escape from if possible, as those who stay to fight end up locked in a deathtrap.

(I will, however, absolutely fault Roddenberry for continuing to turn a salary from the show he not only walked away from but which was hurting for money as it was. This is the veritable definition of scummy.)

But although it is imperative to keep in mind that this year is going out in the context of all of this, I largely want to leave aside the Agony and Ecstasy of Season Three narrative for a time, as I'm saving a more detailed examination of precisely what went wrong for Star Trek creatively this year for a few episodes from now, especially as the show hasn't exactly been a beacon of quality up to now as it is. And anyway, “Spectre of the Gun” has enough going on in its own right, being on the whole one of the more interesting episodes we're going to get this year. Almost inescapably, however, the very things that make it interesting are inexorably bound up with the behind-the-scenes turmoil: This is a story about Star Trek being shackled and sentenced to death. Naturally, it's a Gene Coon script, although this marks the debut of his pseudonym Lee Cronin, which he uses on all of his third season contributions. I'm not entirely sure why Coon felt compelled to protest “Spectre of the Gun”: It's not one of his best offerings (there are pacing issues and a bunch of dialog is straight-up repeated, though I'm inclined to blame that on Arthur Singer), but I'm not sure what about it caused him to be embarrassed enough to refuse credit for it (honestly were I Coon I would have taken my name off of “Space Seed” and “A Taste of Armageddon” instead). Indeed, the true irony is this is still one of the most self-aware and imaginative stories the show ever did.

“Spectre of the Gun” concerns Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov becoming trapped in a recreation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Mistaken for one of the two warring factions of Tombstone, Arizona, the landing party have to find a way to escape before they get caught up in an outbreak of very real violence. Readers who are versed in the history of Doctor Who will most likely have just perked up, as this premise is intriguingly similar to a 1966 Innes Lloyd/William Hartnell serial entitled “The Gunfighters”. Now, I've tried hard to keep Doctor Who out of the discussion up to now as there's a point much further in the future where it's in my opinion far more appropriate to bring it up, but in this case it really is unavoidable as “Spectre of the Gun” is literally the exact same story, down to one of the characters (The Doctor in “The Gunfighters” and Kirk here) trying to convince a Tombstone citizen they're not who they appear to be by getting them to feel the fabric of their clothes in hopes they'll realise it's not of that time and place. Now, I can't accept that Gene Coon would stoop to straight-up plagiarizing a Doctor Who script, if for no other reason there's simply no way he would ever have had the chance to see Doctor Who: That show wouldn't premier in the United States until the 1970s, and as far as I know Coon wasn't in the habit of popping off to the UK on a regular basis. But the similarities really are uncanny, and it's endlessly fascinating to compare and contrast how the two shows handled the same brief.

The first difference is who our characters get mistaken for. In “The Gunfighters”, the TARDIS crew falls in with the Earp brothers because people think The Doctor is Doc Holliday (which is, admittedly, hilariously perfect). In “Spectre of the Gun”, however, the landing party is explicitly assigned the roles of the outlaw Clanton gang who are ultimately killed at the O.K. Corral shootout, perhaps because they're being punished for trespassing in Melkotian territory. But what I find really interesting here is that the Clantons are not only outlaws, but the script is clearly treating them as the protagonists as well. While in “The Gunfighters” there was a lot of anxiety about unnecessary violence and the threat of these armed and dangerous men making a bad situation worse, in “Spectre of the Gun”, every character who isn't an Earp is deeply sympathetic to and supportive of the Clantons and, crucially, when history is suddenly changed and Chekov's character, Billy Claiborne, is gunned down, the Sheriff is completely in favour of Ike ClantonXKirk's right to vengeance.

Identifying Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Chekov (and by extension the rest of the Enterprise crew) as heroic outlaws is incredibly revealing: Not only does it help to drive home and make clear a lot of Gene Coon's signature motifs, but it tells us something about what the general attitude on the Paramount studios set was in late 1968. On the one hand, this is obvious as the whole recreation of Tombstone is part of an overly elabourate death sentence on the part of the Melkotians, so naturally the crew would be cast as outlaws. But let's stop and unpack this for a minute: Why, exactly, are the Enterprise crew on death row? And why did the Melkotians go to such laughably convoluted extremes to punish them? Well, the Melkotians' entire argument comes down to the fact the Enterprise ignored their warning buoy, which doesn't make any sense because Kirk made it very clear on several occasions their only intention was to make peaceful contact. Even under the most cartoonishly exaggerated of authoritarian Judge Dredd-style universes, this shouldn't be a death penalty offense. Kirk and Spock make some comments about how they're under strict orders to make contact with the Melkotians at all costs, which also makes them look like idiots: The last time we had a story like that was “A Taste of Armageddon”, and that was at least in part about how disconnected and incompetent bureaucrats were and how stupid it was to blindly follow orders at all costs.

But this is not the approach “Spectre of the Gun” takes. This is the first episode of Star Trek made in a post-Bjo Trimble, post-”Save Star Trek!” world. While perhaps not textually overt yet, there is now the beginning of a general sense that the point of Star Trek really is to “Seek Out New Life And New Civilizations” and not to enforce space law or solve everybody else's problems. We saw the seeds of this in “Return to Tomorrow” and this episode is the next step: Star Trek is now trying to justify its existence by virtue of its sense of exploration and idealism rather than its moral superiority. In other words then, the Melkotians are trying to punish Star Trek for being Star Trek because they don't understand it (recall they repeal their sentence and allow a diplomatic conference after Kirk proves to them he's not a killer). The real-world overtones of this theme are quite obvious. But this motif goes even deeper: The point of “The Gunfighters” was in many ways the idea that Doctor Who is incredibly ill-suited to being a western. Not only does The Doctor look laughably out-of-place in Tombstone, on the level of the actual production, the guest cast are absolutely terrible at doing US accents and acting like characters in a cowboy flick. This has been cited as evidence that Doctor Who is special amongst genre shows in that it can throw off the more pulpish and action-oriented aspects of science fiction to become something unique unto itself. But this is what “Spectre of the Gun” does too.

The original Star Trek is frequently (and inaccurately) described as “A Wagon Train to the Stars” in an often-misattributed quote. Despite this flatly not being the original intent of the show (Gene Roddenberry's own bafflingly idiotic ramblings about John Wayne in latter years perhaps notwithstanding) there does still remain this tendency to think Star Trek is some kind of Space Western and ought to operate by the logic of Hollywood cowboy flicks. “Spectre of the Gun” is Gene Coon's response to that claim, where having Star Trek trapped into becoming a western is a literal death sentence (note how the Melkotians' Tombstone is “unfinished” and consists mostly of facades and assorted props, just like the stage set for a cowboy movie or play might be. The characters even point this out). In a sense, the crew are forced into playing roles they're not suited to-The entire story is about them trying to re-write the O.K. Corral myth so it ends nonviolently, after all. But while “The Gunfighters” played its premise as a kind of goofy genre romp comedy (complete with an intentionally irritating “theme song” that plays throughout the whole serial) “Spectre of the Gun” treats its gravely seriously, down to teasing the death of a major character as a consequence of Star Trek being forced to not be Star Trek (it's telling Chekov is the character most obviously eager to take up, and disappear into, his role).

What's genius about the trick Coon pulls here is that it ties so beautifully into the recursive artifice and performativity Star Trek inherited from people like him and William Shatner (recall not only did Coon write “A Piece of the Action” but “The Conscience of the King” was the first proper script of his tenure as showrunner). Just like his last script, Star Trek is shown to crash-land into a story it really doesn't belong in, but while there Kirk could slip in and out of the two genres and ultimately deform Star Trek for the better, here he's forcibly shoehorned into a role he's not supposed to play, and things go badly wrong. Although Kirk may still be a literary outlaw (and it's perfect that in the last two Gene Coon scripts Kirk has gone from mob boss to leader of an Old West gang of bandits and gamblers), this role requires him to be a murderer, and that's something his personal moral code won't permit. So, he does what he's best at: Rebels against the narrative structure and reshapes it from within. So, when Spock deduces that the entire recreation is (of course) one big artifice, Kirk holds a mind-meld orgy to get the landing party to aggressively reject the reality of their situation, thus making them immune to the Earps' bullets and allowing them to wrestle Star Trek back from the hands of the people who don't know what it's true potential is and want to make it a show about space cowboys.

I can't think of a better way to open up Star Trek's notoriously problematic, doomed-from-the-start third season, which makes it all the more astounding this wasn't made the season premier. Gene Coon makes one last grand attempt to define what Star Trek should be about, even in a time where it's becoming clear his vision of the show is no longer the network-mandated and approved one. It's not altogether surprising Coon only has three stories left after this. But the true tragedy here is that we know Coon and his friends will ultimately win: Star Trek gets to come back over and over again, and it's entirely thanks to the efforts of people like him, D.C. Fontana, Paul Schneider, William Shatner and John Meredyth Lucas. While the production circa 1968 may now be indifferent to their efforts and eager to move beyond them, we certainly won't be.


  1. I am becoming utterly convinced that James T. Kirk is a magician. But it's hard to separate his magic as a distinct written entity, evidently aware of the narrative, from Shatner's performance of him; his power of plot metamorphosis is so rooted in writers who are writing things based on Shatner's strength of humanity.

    Actually, while at the time it likely had a bit of a counter-culture element, America has always held its nonfictional outlaws with folk hero reverence. It's interesting to think about, because everyone in the later generations of Star Trek always seem to hold that same outlaw folk hero reverence for Kirk; the renegade star-captain who could get away with anything, the folk hero captain with the country doctor, Scottish miracle worker and the half-human vulcanian. The time travel abuser. The man who made first contact with the Gorn by sparing their captain's life in a deathmatch.

    My memories of "Spectre" are as shallow as the facades of the Melkotian Tombstone. I never could figure out why the heroes were depicted as the Clantons, not the Earps.

    But there is certainly a whiff of magic here. A space race so rare, they're near mythic to passing freighter crews. The Melkotian's form is practically that of a ghost, and conjures a town called Tombstone from Kirk's memories.

    The death-knell rang. The show is dead on its feet, the final great episodes vestigial.

  2. How interesting that, at more-or-less the exact same time, The Prisoner also did a 'Western' episode in which forces controlling the scenario as a kind of hallucinatory deadly theatre try to force the hero to become a killer. At the height of post-war social struggle, the foundational myth of America (the Wild West) becomes an ideological arena in which forces using and manipulating the ideology attempt to reshape the moral agent as a killer trapped inside a seemingly inescapable historical/narrative propulsion towards violence.

  3. This might be my favourite of your review-plus-background-detail-I-didn’t-knows so far: real-life metaphor “The Last Chance Saloon” as “The Trial of a Time Lord” two decades early. Terrific diegetic and extra-diegetic analysis.

    It’s always been one I was very fond of – a lasting memory from childhood, because a touch of weird horror always appealed (great title, too) – and, following Jack ‘champion of weird horror’ Graham’s comment above I’ve long meant to write a three-in-one review of The Gunfighters, Spectre of the Gun and Living In Harmony. But I’ve not got round to it, so can’t link to one I prepared earlier. Sorry.

    Each of the three stories on their own is weird. Taken together, they’re much weirder, as they seem to be doing what you’d expect each other’s series to be doing. Most blatantly, Spectre of the Gun seems more The Prisoner than The Prisoner – almost Brechtian. As a boy, I often thought Star Trek looked fake, but even very young this one was curiously exciting because I could tell it was meant to be fake, and that engaged me in wondering why.

    And considering that the Prisoner version is supposed to have been banned in the US because of drug references, note how Scottie’s not just on the local rotgut, but very keen to sniff the trank gas too.

    The brilliant thing about Spectre of the Gun is that it’s not at all like The Gunfighters in any surface way, but that both are so similarly unexpected. You’d think a Doctor Who version would be either strictly realist, and doom-laden, and properly ‘historical’ – The Massacre, remade in Tombstone – or very stylised and theatrical, like The Celestial Toymaker. Instead, it ambitiously aims to look the part, which it clearly can’t, then does it as a comedy pastiche of the Western genre.

    And a Star Trek version should be even more predictable: like those interminable Season One ‘parallel development’ stories, they’d simply do it on the back lot. Using the abundance of Western sets and South Californian sun is the most obvious thing in the world for an American show in the ’60s. And then they don’t, at all – they make a virtue of saying, ‘We could make this exactly right, and you know it, so we’re going to make it exactly wrong and on stage’.

    So the Doctor Who version chooses to do what Star Trek could effortlessly have managed with their available resources in the style of A Piece of the Action, while the Star Trek version chooses to do what Doctor Who could effortlessly have managed with their available resources in the style of The Celestial Toymaker or, by that time, The Mind Robber (which it resembles in meaning, though the Who story it’s closest to in alienated tone is The Edge of Destruction). And The Prisoner does a mixture of both.